Sunday, July 17, 2011

So Long Senegal!

I had always thought about joining the Peace Corps but, it took until the summer before my senior year of college to realize that a corporate job was not what I wanted for post-graduation: I wanted a little adventure and I wanted to push myself.

I ended up submitting my application in September 2008 and, over the course of almost a year, worked towards THE PEACE CORPS. I have to believe several people, myself included, weren't sure if I was actually going to end up spending two years in a developing country, but I went through the application process. There was no way I could have understood what Peace Corps would actually be then but here I am, an RPCV (returned peace corps volunteer) with a complete service behind me. There really is no experience like Peace Corps - I've hit some of the lowest lows but I can't tell you how great the highs are. Work projects have failed, I've been harassed, and several days have passed when I just wanted to give up. I've also done more than I thought I could, have made some amazing friends, and have really experience part of the world in a way just visiting wouldn't do.

There's nothing like being a Peace Corps volunteer. If you're thinking about joining, I would recommend it. As much as I hate to admit it but all of the cheesy promotional sayings about Peace Corps are true - it's going to be possibly one of the most difficult times in my life, but I've loved it.

703 days after I left Chicago I'll be returning. Thank you everyone for reading my blog and following this adventure. Thanks Peace Corps and Senegal for giving me two truly unforgettable years.

So long!

Goodbye Bambey

Because it was my last morning in Bambey, I got up before sunrise yesterday to give myself some time and to enjoy the last few hours of this part of my life. I finished cleaning my room, swept one last time, packed all of my electronics away, and showered - by the time everything was ready the car that I had rented was there to pick me up. He driver was only a few minutes early but I couldn't help feeling like it was too soon. Before I go on, let me say that, regardless of the emotions I had while leaving - I am still extremely excited and ready to go home.

Back to Bambey: the driver and Miss helped me take my bags (2 suitcases, 3 rice sacks full of trash) out to the car. It was still fairly early so only the women and my host dad were awake. First I said goodbye to Aisha, Khady's mom. We were both pretty teary-eyed but we managed to keep it together for our left handshake (which, in Wolof, is symbolic that the handshake isn't "completed" or "right" so you have to go back and finish it, in other words, it's a "this isn't goodbye" sort of goodbye). Next to Aisha was my host mom and the second we made eye contact we both started crying. It might seem ridiculous but I really do feel like we're family so saying goodbye to her and not knowing if I will see her again was hard. The rest of the goodbyes with my host family were all a teary blur; my host dad offered a prayer for my safe return back and the driver set off. I feel like emotions are normally fairly mixed: you're sad yet anxious, you're angry and frustrated, etc. but yesterday morning was just sad. It was just raw, pure sad. Yes, like I said, I'm very excited to come home but I wasn't thinking about that while I was saying goodbye to what has been my home for two years.

It took about 45 minutes to get from Bambey to Alyssa's house in Thies. We loaded her bags in the car when the driver told me that we had too much baggage for what he and I had negotiated - we needed to pay him more. I LOST it and just snapped at him, "we're leaving our Senegalese families today, the people we've lived with for two years, and we don't know when we'll ever see them again and YOU'RE ASKING ME FOR MORE MONEY?!" I think my outburst scared him enough and he didn't mention it further. While Alyssa said goodbye to her host family I hid in the car - I couldn't deal with another crying Senegalese mom. After leaving Alyssa's, before leaving Thies, the driver stopped to pick something up. I got out and started taking my trash bags out of the car. The drive came and was EXTREMELY confused but we explained it to him and he decided we should wait until we were out of town to dump my trash. A few kilos out of Thies we stopped so I could get rid of the bags:



Sure I might have set some Peace Corps Volunteer's project back several years by dumping trash on the road but at least my replacement won't have to get rid of it and my host family won't go through it. After the trash dump we continued to Pout to get Jackie. This pick-up aws exactly like Alyssa's - we loaded her bags then hid from the crying families.

Once we started on the road out of Pout our normal rented sept-place became the PARTY PLACE! Alyssa popped open one of our bottles of champagne (that had been hanging out in Jackie's fridge) out the car window while Jackie pulled out special bucket/cups, decorated with American stickers, and I got an American playlist playing. We toasted to our two years and to the ridiculousness of it all. The trip into Dakar didn't take too long - just a few hours and we only got lost once.
In Dakar we grabbed burgers from the place next to the regional house and tackled the repacking of our suitcases. Alyssa and I had things to redistribute and we all had lots of things in our lockers at the regional house. Because there are several people leaving this week the house is just an explosion of bags. There's almost no room for walking because everyone has so much stuff. Add to that one of the hottest days we've had in a while and you get a slow afternoon.

Once the bags had been repacked we all just hung out in the backyard of the house where it's always the coolest. Eventually we cleaned up and went to a friend's apartment for some cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. Even though the day was very emotionally overwhelming it was nice to just sit with friends and talk.

Today we're hanging out at the Peace Corps office so we have internet and because there isn't much to do in Dakar when it's raining like it is today. Later tonight we'll have some sort of celebratory dinner and then, around 2am, Alyssa, Matt, and I head to the airport for the PARTY PLANE back home.

I'm hoping to get one final blog posted tonight so keep a look out.

KO

Friday, July 15, 2011

Goodbyes

Today was my last day in Bambey. Tomorrow a car picks me up drive on to get Alyssa, then Jackie, then we're off to Dakar. I can't believe it's the end. Don't get me wrong, I'm very excited to get home but I just can't believe that it's been two years and that my Peace Corps Service - a block of time I've been talking about and thinking about for almost three years now... is done. This part of my life has two days left on it then it's on to the next thing, whatever that ends up being.

Yesterday I went around town saying my final goodbyes to some of my work partners. I also had a little last minute business to wrap up, securing my replacement a counterpart, and then I needed to pack. I was taught to pack in piles, which, in Onyshko speak, usually means a pile to pack and a pile to throw out.... in my current life it means a pile pack for home, a pile to pack then unpack and give to specific volunteers, a pile to pack then unpack for the general free-for-all volunteer closet, a pile for my host family, a pile of things to leave for my replacement, and a pile of trash. Add Khady coming to my room and constantly moving things and you get quite a hectic time, but it's almost done. All I have left to do tomorrow morning is pack my electronics, sweep, and lock the trunk for my replacement.

Today I said goodbye to Matar and gave him the Peace Corps shirt my training group made. It's dorky and probably too small for him but he has my ancienne's so I thought it would be nice if he had mine too. That was a hard goodbye but I know that nothing will be as hard as saying goodbye to my family.

Tonight they made me beans for dinner because they're my favorite. One of the kids saw it and said, "beans? ugh? really? we're eating beans? whhhyyyy?" and the three women responded "because Fatou loves them and it's her last night!" It was so nice that they did that for me. My host mom also made me a care package of my favorite Senegalese things to take back home. Adji (the 12 year old) will be in summer school tomorrow when I leave so I had to say goodbye to her today... we were both crying by the end of it so I know that tomorrow I'm going to be a mess. Normally my philosophy on goodbyes is that you're either good enough friends you'll see them again or you're not really friends so you shouldn't cry. My host family really is the exception to that rule. They've become a second family to me and I want to see them again but I don't know when it will be, who will be around, all of that. It's just going to be sad but to come home I have to say goodbye.

So! Tomorrow I leave Bambey. I'm going to try and blog at least once more from Dakar, hopefully in that sitting I'll have two blogs to post. Happy Friday everyone.

KO

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Passing the Torch

Yesterday was the last day of de-myst/volunteer visit and the Thies Region decided to celebrate 4 generations of volunteers in style. The Thies region didn't really exist, or at least not in its current strong form, until my group came along. We started organizing lunches in Thies and followed our social gathering with work projects: collaborations and the girls' camp. Top this off with shirts and an appreciation for the finer things in Senegal and you get the current Thies region.

So! To introduce our replacements into this high class living style as well as to their new besties (or at least their newest neighbors), we organized a little get-together. Everyone from the region met at Warang, a liquor distillery, for a tasting of liquors made with local flavors (bissap, ginger, cashew apple, etc.) followed by lunch at a beach front restaurant. The lunch place is FAMOUS for their pizzas, apparently some of the best in Senegal, but somehow their wood burning pizza oven was broken and irreparable (even by a specialist brought in from France), so we had pasta instead. Originally we were supposed to get rice, chicken, and onion sauce but, given that Alyssa and I have PROUDLY gone 2 years without paying for Senegalese food outside of our houses, we weren't going to let that slide. I called to organize alternative options. We settled on two pasta options; I asked for 11 of one and 11 of the other... instead we each got a plate with, from left to right, sauce 1 (carbonara), pasta, sauce 2 (bolognaise)... it was a little odd but kind of brilliant at the same time. After lunch I took my last public transport ride back to site and here I am. I need to spend my final two days packing and saying goodbye to people but I can't help but stall. It's bizarre for the end to actually be almost here. I really can't believe that what has seemed so mundane for two years is the end - I'm trying to remember everything. I need to get a little more packing done tonight but I'll leave you with a picture of the Thies/Dakar region, past, present, and future.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Beginning and The End

I got up bright and early this morning to leave the training center for the last time. I wasn't traveling alone on this trip, I was accompanying my replacement, Stanzi, to see her new home. She and I will be in Bambey until Tuesday touring around a really just enjoying all that there is to offer. It is exciting and encourages a lot of retrospection on my part. I remember seeing Bambey for the first time and, simultaneously, the city looked unique and indistinguishable from what I'd already seen of Senegal. I remember all of the questions I had so I'm trying to preempt them or at least answer them as well as I can. I honestly seems like just yesterday when I walked from my new house, down the main street, met Matar for the first time, and continued into town. I can't believe that my two years are up and that this is now Stanzi's new house, my old house; her first time meeting Matar, one of my last times with him.

Today we did a basic walking tour just so she could start orienting herself. We walked through the market to visit my vegetable lady while causing quite a scene the entire time (two Americans! Ridiculous!). At one point several women gathered round to exclaim how amazing it was that I was Kira (my ancienne volunteer)'s replacement and I was standing next to my replacement! Shocking! Amazing! SO MANY GENERATIONS OF VOLUNTEERS! Every vendor we've seen has also made sure that I told Stanzi she should shop with them.

We also visited Matar and I showed her all of the different designs. It seems like she has a ton of great ideas already - I'm so excited to see how the artisan network and Matar's product line grows!

Most importantly of the day was her introduction and interactions with the family. We walked in and there was a huge to-do because she was here, I'd come back from a long trip, and Awa (my host sister who was studying in Algeria) came back and I saw her for the first time today. She needed a Senegalese name so I told my host family and my host mom and dad thought about it. They finally suggested Khady because they know how close I am to the little Khady already in my house. After deciding that it wouldn't be too confusing to have two "Khady Falls" in the house, Stanzi got her new name! At the time, little Khady wasn't home but I was anxious to see how she would react to the new toubab that I had promised her. She was definitely shocked that the new toubab was here and was actually a real person. I think it took her even more by surprise when she learned that they shared the exact same name. Throughout the course of the day, however, little Khady went from being abnormally shy to her normal, sassy, bossy self. By this evening she was taking turns climbing all over Stanzi and I. I'm really happy that my host family seems to excited and welcoming of Stanzi. I had a feeling they would be but it's great to see that my replacement will be well taken care of for her two years.

One last thing, I had my last girls' group meeting today with the core group of girls and boy was that sad. It was really exciting to introduce them to Stanzi and to listen to them talk about what they want to do with her next year. Salamata (my favorite) even came early and gave me a pair of shoes which is so unbelievable nice, especially considering how poor her family is. She and I didn't have a ton of time to talk but she told me that her sister asked her dad if Salamata could live with and work for her sister for the summer. I'm a little worried that she won't be able to come back to school but she seems to think she will - I hope she's right. Saying goodbye to my little group of girl scouts was sad. They haven't been my largest project but they've become like members of my Senegalese family. I was getting a little choked up when thanking them for helping me and being so kind and welcoming to me.

But! Enough about today from my perspective... you should all go to Stanzi's blog (www.scatteringthemorningdew.tumblr.com) and read about her first Bambey day.

KO

Friday, July 8, 2011

Relationships

Over the past two years I've seen a lot of growth in a lot of my relationships. I've been so impressed with everyone.

I came to Peace Corps with several really amazing friends from college and from high school. Though I was a little worried about how they would fare, two years is a long time, but I have been so impressed and thankful for how these relationships have changed over the past two years. I've had friends that I already loved dearly show me so much support through packages, letters, emails, phone calls, and even visits. There have been friends that I feel like I have actually grown closer to during these two years. I think I said this a while ago but I am constantly impressed with how much effort my friends, including women from my sorority, have put into staying in touch. I really cannot thank all of you enough for everything you've done during the past two years. On my worst days you listened to be complain about things that were a world away and not related to you, you've let me escape from Senegal with news from home, and you've really shown that the line between friends and family often blurs in a beautiful way.

Not only have I really been impressed by my friends from home, but I seriously never expected to make the strong friendships that I've found in Peace Corps. All of the volunteers are so helpful and accepting but I have found such a good, close group of friends I am sure we will stay in contact. They've also helped me through some of the lowest points in my service and they've been there to celebrate the high points. We've had a really reciprocal relationship so I'm pretty sure they know how integral they have been to my service - thanks toubabs!

I wish I had more to write about how supportive Alan has been during my service but I really am speechless. I know anything I say won't appropriately explain how amazing he has been with letters, packages, coming to visit, and spending a ton of money to call me almost every night on Skype or Google Voice. I really feel like our relationship has grown in depth exponentially.

This brings me to my family. Oh man, what do I say. My parents have sent me a small grocery store of packages that has really pulled me through my service. They've come to visit and put up with the tortures of Senegal that I put them through. They've always been so supportive and encouraging - it sounds so simple but it really has made my service easier. Beyond just the support of my parents, my extended family has really shown how strong a family can be - even a family that's spread around the country. Every email, call, or conversation we've had has really made me feel the great Onyshko/Pulley network.

Everyone who has read my blog and been part of these two years have put so much work into my service that I really cannot thank you enough. It might seem very simple, but even just being an audience to my stories has made a positive impact on my service. Thank you all so much for the support and the love you've given over the past two years. It really has meant a lot and it's made my Peace Corps service easier.


KO

PS: Tomorrow I'll write more about my replacement as she visits Bambey for the first time - I'm excited to see Bambey again for the first time through her eyes!

Changes

Two years is a fair amount of time - so here's a list of some of the things that have changed:

-I can wear black and brown at the same time. I would NEVER wear any black at all with any brown at all... until I came to Peace Corps when clothing became more about "keeping me cool" then "looking cool."

-I now eat onions and mustard. Didn't before, do now.

-I enjoy working with youth.

-I have an awesome gag reflex. Sure when I came here I had pretty good control of my gag reflex (I think that comes from growing up with bad dogs who poop in the house) but now, many, most nasty smells and disgusting things only trigger a grimace.
-My confidence with French has really improved.

-I think I'm impervious to awkward. Seriously, just about every second of my day is awkward so I'm kind of just over it now. (No, this is not a challenge)
-I am a lot more patient.
-My "camp fire cooking" ability has really expanded. I have several recipes to pull from that are all one pot, one knife, and cooked over a fire/gas.

-Speaking of fire... I've cooked over fire, charcoal, and gas.

-I can light a gas stove, though I'm still afraid of it.
-I'm outstanding at killing bugs, especially mosquitoes.
In just a few hours my replacement will know they're going to Bambey and I'm sure I'll have a lot to write about her three day visit to Bambey over this weekend. I keep saying this, but keep watching for more blogs posted - maybe even a second today.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

American Holidays Celebrated Internationally

I hope everyone had an amazing holiday this past weekend! The Fourth of July has always been a fun holiday but I’ve really come to appreciate it even more living here (yes, I realize that sounds a little ironic).

Saturday morning April (the volunteer that lives 25km east of me) rented me a place in a sept-place to pick me up on the way to Thies. She planned on leaving around 8am but called me around 7:20am to tell me she was leaving the garage… I quickly threw a ton of stuff in my bag and jumped in the shower. In 20 minutes I was locking my door and on the way out. It usually takes me about 5 minutes to walk to the road - where April was meeting me – but I was about 3 minutes late. April, and her car of Senegalese people were waiting for me so I took off running. Sure I’ve picked up running since being here but I’ve never taken an early morning jog in normal clothes, sandals, with a full hiking backpack and carrying a purse with my computer. According to April, I came running up to the car, opened the back door, and immediately offered a winded “Saalamaalikum” greeting. April and I were the first people in Thies and got out of the car just as the dashboard started smoking. Eventually we met the other 6 people in our party and left for the beach!

For this holiday weekend (America and Tamar’s birthdays) we decided to try a new beach. We rented rooms at a hotel that we thought had been recommended by volunteers but no one could remember the name so we just went based on the prices of the rooms. It turns out we had made an excellent decision and we ended up in a hobbit like/medieval castle/stone fortress/monastery hotel on the beach. We spent most of the weekend eating crepes and lounging at the beach and in the water. We all got a little burned but it was helpful in evening out all of our tan lines that are quite stark from two years of walking around under the African sun with our knees covered.

Yesterday morning we left to go to Dakar to celebrate the Fourth. I decided that, in honor of the birthday for the greatest country ever, I would get a high-five for all 235 years of America. That started early in the morning and has continued all day. It’s included many high-fives over the phone, including 11 from Alan and his friends celebrating in New York. The traffic on the way into Dakar was HORRIBLE but eventually we made it to the regional house. We quickly threw in a load of laundry and washed the soot and exhaust from the ride before heading to the American club. There was a big barbeque so we all got to eat burgers for the Fourth. Because all of the US Embassy workers have a more formal event in the evening, the day barbeque was aimed at kids… which explains the CREEPY Senegalese clowns. Seriously. I thought normal clowns were unsettling but Senegalese clowns are really creepy. One point of their act included balancing kids high in the air above concrete – horrifying.

After burgers, we the 8 volunteers went downtown to run a few errands and eat ice cream. Alyssa, April, and I hit a GOLDMINE at a bead store. We found two amazing Senegalese guys who sell big strings of beads. Usually, artists like Alyssa’s jewelry maker, buy a strand of beads and make several necklaces using a few of these beads as focal point beads. As people who cannot pass up interesting jewelry, the three of us spent a while in the store creating different combinations and eventually purchasing a ton. Here’s what volunteers having too much fun with beads looks like:

With new necklaces in hand, we went to N’Ice Cream – the ice cream store – to continue our celebration of America through food: Obama Cookie Ice Cream. YUM!

After ice cream we met back the rest of our crew at the regional house to begin making dinner. Let me add a quick disclaimer that, though it sounds like all we do is eat, and though we do eat a lot of food, it takes a lot of time to travel so between ice cream and starting to cook it was maybe an hour or so. We made a delicious, America dinner with many thanks to my mom for sending us the key ingredient: Velveeta. If you combine Velveeta with bacon and macaroni you get an addicting, amazing, dinner. For a third time today – amazing. Dinner was followed by a viewing of The American President.

For the next few days I’ll be in Dakar doing close of service things. The plan is to be totally done before I head to Thies on Thursday. Here’s hoping it all works and everything gets done!

I promised more retrospective blogs and I’ll try and get those going!

KO

Saturday, July 2, 2011

And when I come back...

Most of the volunteers are down in Kedougou celebrating America but, because I have to be in the office on Tuesday, I'm sticking around the Dakar area. We're trying out a new beach town slightly north of the place we usually go. For the 4th I'll, hopefully, be at the bbq in Dakar. If that doesn't happen, however, several volunteers have the back up plan of a "donut party" because what's more American than fried food.

I'll spend about a week out of site and when I come back next week it will be with my replacement! The end is really approaching quickly. I have 16 days left in country, and only 6 of them are left in Bambey. I really need to up the retrospective blogging so I will try and post Tuesday.

Have an amazing 4th! Eat a burger or some very American chips and dip for all the Peace Corps volunteers trying to celebrate it internationally!

KO